We must move to a circular economy to reduce our overconsumption of natural resources that are damaging the planet and causing climate change.

As consumption around the world continues to increase, there is more pressure than ever on the earth’s decreasing resources. That’s why we urgently need to transform the way we consume and manage resources in Scotland.

The need for a circular economy

To reduce our overconsumption of natural resources we must move to a circular economy where products are designed to last as long as possible, are easy to repair and made out of materials that can be recycled repeatedly. Essentially, we need to keep materials circulating around the economy for as long as possible before they become waste.

Scotland currently operates under a linear economy model described as take-make-waste where raw materials are extracted from the earth, made into products, and then discarded as part of our throwaway culture, with only limited recycling of resources and very little reuse of products.

Under a reuse economy, many materials are used again but there is still waste from non-recyclable products. In order to reduce our reliance on the planet’s resources we need to urgently move to a circular economy where there are very high rates of recycling, reuse and repair, and materials circulate in the economy for as long as possible.

Benefits of a circular economy

In Scotland, we currently consume as if we had three planets available to produce the resources we use and absorb the waste we create. Scotland’s material consumption accounts for 82% of our entire carbon footprint. So moving to a circular economy, which will reduce our material demands, is necessary to meet our climate change goals. It’s estimated that a circular economy would save Scotland 11 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – a quarter of our current total.

A move to a circular economy in Scotland will have other positive impacts on the planet. It will reduce the burden on other countries where materials are sourced – often through damaging and dangerous extractive activities like mining. By keeping materials circulating in our economy for longer, the amount of waste that litters our streets and countryside, pollutes our waters and injures our wildlife will be reduced. It will also help end the environmental injustice of exporting waste products to other nations.

In order to successfully move towards a circular economy, major changes to the way we make products and consume resources will need to be made, bringing economic opportunities and innovation to both existing businesses and new start-up companies.

Challenges of a circular economy

The transition to a circular economy is an international challenge and still in the early stages. At present, the concept of a circular economy is still new and is not a widely shared ambition among many countries. The Netherlands is leading the way and has set a target to move to a full circular economy by 2050, with an interim objective of a 50% reduction in the primary raw materials (minerals, fossil fuels and metals) by 2030.

Other countries have started to follow this lead and in 2021 the European Parliament voted to create binding, science based targets for material use and consumption footprint. Friends of the Earth Europe published a report jointly with the European Environmental Bureau which recommends the EU must reduce its material footprint by 65% by 2050. In Scotland, the first assessment of our national Material Flows showed that Scotland’s material footprint was 18.4 tonnes per person in 2017 – more than double sustainable levels.

A circular economy requires technological, social and system changes in order to be successful. At present, the benefits and costs for the environment are not sufficiently reflected in the price of a product. It will also require changes in our behaviour as people have become used to living with non-circular behavioural patterns in recent years.

We’re calling for a strong and ambitious circular economy for Scotland

The Scottish Government will begin consulting on a new Circular Economy Bill in May 2022. Plans for a previous Circular Economy Bill had been shelved in 2019 due to the pandemic. The updated Bill will be more ambitious than its predecessor, reflecting the step change needed in society.

Friends of the Earth Scotland are continuing our call for robust footprint targets which we believe are needed to move Scotland towards a true circular economy. This should include both carbon footprint and material reductions targets.

Plastic Pollution

We are in the midst of a plastics crisis

Plastic is a major contributor to climate change, and is polluting nature and harming wildlife. The more plastic we make, the more greenhouse gas emissions we release into the atmosphere. As long as we continue to make plastic from fossil fuels (which makes up 90% of plastic in the EU) then we will continue to support the oil and gas industry, adding further fuel to the global climate crisis.

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Incineration capacity in Scotland is set to increase to burn at least an extra one million tonnes of waste a year which raises serious environmental concerns and creates a barrier to moving to a circular economy.

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